U.S. to use sonar that could hurt dolphins, whales

Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- U.S. government regulators granted the navy a permit Tuesday to use sonar in an international maritime exercise involving Canadian ships, despite environmentalists' concerns it could disturb or even kill whales and dolphins.

It was the first such permit granted to the navy, and one environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it will file a lawsuit Wednesday to prevent the sonar's use.

The monthlong exercise, which includes anti-submarine training, involves naval forces from eight countries, including Canada. It began Monday off the Hawaiian Islands. The sonar part of the exercise begins after July 4 and lasts three weeks.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gave the navy a permit to use mid-frequency active sonar, which can affect marine mammals' behaviour. In documents released Tuesday, NOAA determined the exercise would cause no significant environmental impact.

NOAA also concluded the navy's use of the sonar was not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of threatened and endangered species - including the Hawaiian monk seal - in the exercise areas.

"The navy and NOAA have worked hard these past several months to take the appropriate measures necessary to avoid harming marine life, while also ensuring the realism of this vital multinational exercise," said U.S. navy Rear Admiral James Symonds, director of naval environmental programs.

But the NRDC said using the sonar would be illegal.

"It is absurd to designate an area a Marine National Monument one week and then authorize the navy to blast it with high-intensity sonar the next," said Joel Reynolds, a senior lawyer at NRDC and director of its Marine Mammal Protection Project.

"It is possible for the navy to train effectively without needlessly inflicting harm on marine life and that is exactly what federal law requires."

The ships using the sonar would not be inside the national monument area President George W. Bush designated in early June, in the waters off the northwestern Hawaiian Island. Instead, the navy said, the sonar would be used in waters surrounding the main Hawaiian Islands.

Navy spokesman Lieut. Ryan Perry said the exercise is critical to national security and specific steps will be taken to avoid or minimize any effect on marine life.

The exercise is designed to train sailors to detect and hunt stealthy submarines - a top priority of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Hawaiian waters provide the opportunity to realistically train for a variety of crises, Perry said.

Perry said the sonar operators will reduce active sonar power by 75 per cent if a marine mammal is spotted within 1,094 metres of the ship and drop it further if mammals are detected within 547 metres. They will turn off the sonar if the mammal is detected within 219 metres.

Earlier this year, NOAA said the sonar used during the Pacific Rim exercise in 2004 may have contributed to the mass-stranding of more than 150 melon-headed whales in Hanalei Bay, Kauai. NOAA's study concluded the whales - which usually inhabit only deep water - may have heard the signals and headed into the shallow water.

While there was no conclusive finding, NOAA asked the navy to reduce its sonar's power during this summer's exercises and also asked the navy to turn off active sonar when the whales come within a set distance.

The naval exercise runs from June 26 to July 28 and the sonar would be used for a three-week period.